Richard Reeves

Democrats in Trouble

LOS ANGELES -- Perhaps it is time to revisit my end-of-the-year thought that the 2004 contest for the Democratic presidential nomination would be between the governor of California and the new junior senator from New York. I guess kind words jinxed Gray Davis and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Within weeks -- or was it hours? -- Gov. Davis was out of energy and Sen. Clinton was tangled in a web woven as her husband set out to deceive.

For a time it seemed, at least to me, that Davis and Clinton II would inevitably be drawn into presidential politics because the odds were that our new grammatically challenged Republican president might be easy pickings in four years. Timing is all in politics, and this was going to be their best shot before fresher faces began to appear around the country. George W. Bush may still look pretty shaky -- at least he did during his first press conference on Thursday -- but Davis and Rodham Clinton are in worse trouble than anyone could have imagined.

Mrs. Clinton's first lap in her race to greatness ended badly when she slipped on the family sleaze -- and it turns out that it's not only her husband but her brother and perhaps her staff, too. Davis' smooth, ever-so-cautious advance to national stature ended abruptly when the lights went out all over his great state. (The lights, by the way, are burning bright in Los Angeles and other jurisdictions that have old-fashioned publicly owned utilities. LA's Department of Water and Power suddenly looks like the future instead of leftover New Deal socialism.)

My two fallen front-runners, though, still have time to make the public forget these dark days -- although Davis' re-election in 2002 is nothing like the sure shot it seemed to be. But both of them are in a party that looks a lot less solid than it did only weeks ago after a deadlocked presidential election and gains in both the House and Senate. Part of what could be interpreted as a good election for the Democrats happened because California suddenly became a Democratic state, a big Massachusetts -- not because of Bill Clinton's popularity here, but because of the big-time blunders of Davis' Republican predecessor, Pete Wilson.

Wilson's name is rarely mentioned now, but the disastrous deregulation of California's privately owned power companies was his administration's idea. He was also primarily responsible for Proposition 187, the 1994 anti-immigrant initiative that politically energized the state's huge Hispanic population. One of the reasons that Al Gore defeated Bush here and ran ahead in the national popular vote was the high turnout of Hispanic Democrats in Southern California.

Partly because of that Hispanic vote, Davis was a favorite for re-election. Now he has to deal with Wilson's other legacy, electrical chaos. If he can straighten out the mess without raping California ratepayers and taxpayers, he could be president. If not, he'll be unemployed in 2003.

Rodham Clinton's problems are personal, not political. She has to make sure her family's hands stay in their own pockets. If she gets caught lying, she can forget about running for re-election in 2006, much less becoming president in 2004. Good luck.

All that might mean that Al Gore, the unfortunate, might be tempted to run again for president. Good luck again.

The Democrats need a lot of luck. Their problem is that they are being perceived as "the losers' party." More and more they represent people seen as losers in this new America: African-Americans, the poor, women, immigrants, government employees and organized labor. The saddest comment I have heard on the party's current state came in casual conversation the other day with a Democratic congressman, Edward Markey of Massachusetts, who said he couldn't remember the last time a young male Irish-American or Italian-American back home came up to him and said he was a Democrat.

For now, it seems that President Bush is the lucky one -- until kind words jinx him, too.

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